If you’re learning about Indian Residential Schools in the U.S. and Canada for the first time; it’s critical you’re cognizant of the fact that these systems of colonial violence deliberately inflicted intergenerational trauma on Indigenous communities. Navigating our own lack of knowledge about this type of government-backed, church-led atrocity should not be placed on the shoulders of those who bear its scars.
This article discusses triggering topics related to the Indian Residential School system which some readers may find distressing. For any Indigenous People directly impacted, useful support/crisis resources have been included at the end of this post.
At the end of May this year, the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation made an announcement; they had discovered the remains of 215 children hidden in a mass grave on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School that was open from 1893 to 1978. For decades, First Nation communities have been speaking out about the thousands of young relatives who never made it home from the many institutions like this around the country. Their collective pain and grief has been so successfully ignored that the majority of non-Indigenous Canadians barely hold any knowledge of what their country has done — until now.
As much as the Canadian government and Catholic Church would like to maintain silence about their genocidal history; the 215 children must find their way home. All children lost to the residential school era (1880s to 1990s) must be located and returned to the care of their families — including those in the United States.
Starting in the 1800s (1860 for America and 1880 for Canada), Indian Residential Schools were federally-funded, church-run tools of aggressive assimilation. Created for the purpose of forcing Indigenous children into “White-American/Canadian” life, Indian Residential Schools were a place of relentless brutality and abuse. Stolen or coercively taken from their families, the aim was to remove every aspect of Indigeneity, including a love of self and connection to culture and replace it with racial hatred and the control of indoctrination. The priests and nuns who ran these schools used neglect, starvation, beatings, rape and murder to try and stop Indigenous lands and cultural lifeways from being passed on to future generations. They failed. This state- and religious-sanctioned genocide is not locked away in a dark, distant part of history — the last Indian Residential School in Canada closed in 1996.
Indigenous communities around Canada and the U.S. know there will be more discoveries like this — they’ve carried this knowledge for a long time. Just days after the May 27th detection of 215 children buried at Kamloops, 104 were found on the grounds of the Brandon Indian Residential School in Manitoba.
[Update June 24th] 751 unmarked graves have been discovered at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School. [Update June 30th] 182 unmarked graves have also been discovered at the site of a former Residential School in Cranbrook, BC. [Update July 13th] 160+ unmarked graves discovered at former Kuper Island School, BC.
Being able to turn away from something like this because we haven’t had to live with the reality of its consequences is no longer an option. As true allies, we have to look for ways to listen effectively and be of service. As Indigenous communities resiliently work to bring their missing children home, here are a few ideas about how you can support them:
- A colonial way of thinking often silences Indigenous voices in favour of centering White romanticism about historical trauma (“saving the s*vage”, for example) — decolonize your mind
- Follow & support Indigenous activists and groups that educate, share, uplift and mobilize — understand that the work they do is emotionally exhausting, your heartbreak about these events is not the same as theirs
- Indigenous communities are the caretakers of their culture and their lead must be respected at all times — if you’re going to a protest, memorial or gathering, etc adhere to their wishes and protocols
- Follow and donate to the Indian Residential School Survivors Society
- Follow and donate to the Orange Shirt Society
- Follow and donate to the Legacy of Hope Foundation
- Read Canada’s Residential Schools: Missing Children & Unmarked Burials (section 4) of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015) — follow the report’s calls to action
- Follow the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation website for up-to-date information about the Kamloops Indian Residential School findings — if you’re interested in donating towards further investigations or memorials for the missing children, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org to ask how best to send money
Understanding the impacts of White settler colonialism on First Nation and Native American People isn’t about pointing fingers or making anyone feel guilty. It does require, however, a willingness to get uncomfortable and resist the urge to hide from the truth. We have to accept that reconciliation means getting out of the way of Indigenous People’s healing — and it’s them, not us, that gets to decide what that looks like and how long it takes.
How are you going to further educate yourself about residential schools? What can you do to support survivors?
Pronunciation: Tk’emlups te Secwépemc (teh-KUM-loops deh seh-KWEP-mookh)
Watch ‘The Stranger’, a short animated film about Chanie Wenjack who ran away from Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School and tried to walk the 600km home. Read more about his story.
First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness Help Line: 1-855-242-3310
Indian Residential School Survivors and Family Hotline: 1-866-925-4419
Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456-4566 or text 45645